My spoiler rich review of Doctor Who‘s assured and unsettling return.
If one was to write a formula for a Dr Who scene what would it include? There’d be a repelent monster of course, there’d be an other worldly setting that also looks like somewhere in Wales, perhaps there’d be a child in peril – Dr Who has always been sappy about children – and of course the Doctor not only to save that child but also to inspire them – because if there’s one thing the show’s even more sentimental about than children it’s hope!
And in the opening of the Magician’s Apprentice that’s precisely what showrunner Stephen Moffat gave us. We begin with soldiers running through a muddy, Somme like battlefield. There’s a steam punk feel: the soldiers are armed with bows and arrows and are being hunted by laser shooting bi-planes. Then we focus in on a single soldier peering into the fog. “Was that a child?” he asks a comrade. He runs after whatever he has seen and calls out to the figure to stop. He does and it is indeed a child – a boy of perhaps 12 or so. The comrade tells the solider to leave now because the enemy is closing in but he tells him it will be alright and he will “catch them up”. By now any seasoned Dr Who fan knows it will definitely not be alright.
“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you” the soldier says and we know from his demeanour he means it. The ground begins to shake. The soldier looks first to the floor and then to the clearly terrified boy. “I think we’ve got company” says the soldier before asking “do you know what hand mines are?” The boy – his alarm clearly growing further – nods weakly. “Well in that case you know you’ve got to stand absolutely still” warns the soldier. “Ever seen a hand mine?” he continues jovially, perhaps thinking this will reassure the boy. It doesn’t work. His eyes are now locked on the soldier’s feet, in an expression of even greater terror. The soldier looks down and sees a hand is protruding from the mud and has grabbed his foot. He begins trying to offer reassurance but as he speaks the ground opens up and with startling rapidity he disappears into it.
The camera cuts first to the boy recoiling and then back to the ground. We start to hear a horrible low squelching sound and then an army of hands starts to rise from mud. If that wasn’t unsettling enough it soon becomes apparent that in the palm of each hand is an eye. They turn to look at him. The now utterly desperate boy screams out for help.
Then something in the air changes. We hear it first in the music, the mixture of gusts of wind and violins playing weird low tingling notes stops and the strings begin to play deep, resonant notes. That thing in the air is clearly hope and we Whovians know who represents hope in this ficitional universe. Something flies through the fog towards the boy and lands at his feet: it’s a sonic screwdriver. And then we hear a familiar voice: “your chances of survival are about 1 in a 100. So here’s what you do? You forget about the thousand and focus on the 1.” The Doctor has arrived to save the day.
He tells the boy to pick up the screwdriver and begins telling him about the sonic corridor he’s created which is allowing them to speak even though he’s 50 feet away. This is Dr Who, there’s going to be plenty of mumbo jumbo science! The boy asks who he is. The Doctor replies with some patter about being lost on the way to the bookshop. Trust the Doctor to make light of a desperate situation! He asks: “which war is this? I get them all muddled up?” The boy looks puzzled and replies “it’s just the war”. The Doctor then asks what planet they are on which confuses him further. In a renewed attempt at reassurance the Doctor says “I try not to understand, it’s called an open mind!” That leads into a pep talk about the choice the boy needs to make: to live or to die.
Moffat has built a moment that’s almost painfully Whovian: the Doctor will – with a bit of whimsy and an assist from Murray Gold’s grandiose soundtrack – inspire an innocent to survive and we can all feel warm about it.
And then he suddenly and grotesquely inverts it. The Doctor asks the boy to tell him “the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.” The reply comes back “Davros”, followed by ever more desperate pleas for help, ending with an accusative cry from the boy that “you said you would help me”.
It’s a brutal, smart and daring way to begin a new series. It is steeped in the show’s mythology calling all the way back to the Fourth Doctor deciding whether to destroy the Daleks at their moment of creation and pondering
if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives… could you then kill that child?
Yet it jars us out of the complacent assumption that we know how Doctor Who plays out: our hero is supposed to defy impossible choices not sacrifice children to their harsh logic.
It’s quite a tribute to Moffat’s talents that after such a bravura opening the rest of the episode didn’t feel like a letdown. It moved along at quite a pace and with plenty of creepiness mixed more than a little black humour – much of it provided by Michelle Gomez reprising her role as Missy. And there’s also the pleasantly discombobulating sight of Peter Capaldi essentially doing a David Tennant impression. That all led to a confrontation with a terminally ill Davros and a brutal cliffhanger. It was probably too brutal. Moffat may defy the show’s formula for a scene but this is still Dr Who and not Game of Thrones. Does anyone really think he can leave Missy and Clara dead, and the Tardis destroyed? Therefore, we know some timey-whimeyness will have to come along and make things less devastating. I found this certainty prevented the episode’s climax from generating the kind of dread it was supposed to. By contrast, something less brutal, which could therefore potentially be allowed to stand, might actually have been more horrifying.
Nonetheless, the Magician’s Apprentice and especially its opening sequence was a fantastic way for Doctor Who to return. If this kind of quality can be maintained throughout the series then it will be a treat.